A View from Israel: Conscription Now

Haredi leaders must accept that they are causing a nationwide ’hillul Hashem.’

HAREDIM in army during 1948 370 (photo credit: Printed in ‘Jerusalem’ by Trude Weiss Rosmarin)
HAREDIM in army during 1948 370
(photo credit: Printed in ‘Jerusalem’ by Trude Weiss Rosmarin)
With the broadest unity government in 28 years, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will now have more maneuverability to tackle domestic and foreign policy issues.
While political analysts say that the controversy over the impending eviction of the Ulpana neighborhood built on disputed land in the West Bank settlement of Beit El will likely be the new unity government’s first test, the main domestic issue requiring attention at this point is the Tal Law.
In 1948, then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion agreed to the draft exemption of 400 yeshiva students.
Since then, the country’s population has expanded rapidly, and with it, the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) sector. This translates into thousands of yeshiva students who, each year, receive an exemption from the army, leaving the rest of the country with the responsibility to defend its borders.
According to the Hiddush website, in the past two years there has been an increase of about 10 percent in the number of yeshiva students. The total number of students in yeshivot has increased from 103,000 in 2010, and now stands at 114,000.
The Hiddush website quotes Rabbi Haim Amsalem, and founder of Am Shalem, who said, “The select few who kill themselves truly studying Torah are the torchbearers of the Jewish People and should be given thorough and serious study without interruption. For everyone else, we must find the right formula to integrate them into sharing civic burdens and participating in the workforce. This is the desire of most Israelis and a large part of the ultra- Orthodox population.”
After years of resentment on the part of those who serve in the IDF, and their subsequent petitions to the High Court of Justice to look into the legality of automatic exemption of haredim, the court ruled that the defense minister does not have authority to determine the extent of exemptions.
In response to the court’s ruling, Defense Minister Ehud Barak created a committee in 1999 led by former Supreme Court justice Tzvi Tal to examine the issue.
Based on the committee’s findings, the Tal Law was passed in 2002 as a temporary law which needs to be renewed every five years. The bill enables a continuation of the exemptions to yeshiva students subject to the detailed conditions within the bill.
According to the law, at the age of 22, yeshiva students are provided with a “decision year” and can choose between one-year civilian service alongside a paying job or a shortened 16-month military service and future service in the reserves as an alternative to continuing to study.
A number of motions against the law were filed with the High Court of Justice claiming it violates the principle of equality.
In 2005, the state admitted in a response to a Supreme Court petition that the Tal Law had failed to change enlistment arrangements for haredim, as only a few dozen had enlisted to the army as a result of it. The law was extended in 2007 by another five years. In February, the High Court of Justice ruled that the law is unconstitutional. In an essay on this issue, Rabbi Alfred Cohen asks, “can a class of people legitimately claim that, as a group, they are serving different, equally vital, need for the salvation of the community? On these grounds, should they be exempted from military duty in order to fulfill their unique role in national security?”
Cohen cites a Talmud passage in Tractate Yoma that says, “Possibly the greatest sin in Judaism is hillul Hashem – desecration of the Name, which includes anything which lessens the respect and devotion of people for God and His Torah. Every sin can be forgiven, other than this one.”
In reference to a talmudic text that is often cited as evidence that maintaining the spiritual welfare of the nation is more important than maintaining its physical security, Cohen writes, “the persistent lack of clarity in resolving the issue makes it apparent that, the importance of learning Torah notwithstanding, it cannot be the only consideration in determining normative Jewish practice. Our rabbis have introduced many other factors which at times may mitigate the primacy of the mitzvah of learning Torah.”
Similarly, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, referring to the statement by Maimonides that only a man who has divested himself of all worldly concerns could avoid the draft, asks, “can anyone confront a mirror and tell himself he ought not to go to the army because he is ‘kodesh kedoshim,’ sanctum sanctorum, in the Rambam’s terms?... Those who would single themselves out for saintliness should examine their credentials by the proper standard.”
THE MAIN plans to replace the Tal Law are those presented by the Likud, Kadima, Israel Beytenu, Yesh Atid and Independence parties.
Kadima’s alternative bill would require mandatory service for all within five years, allowing 1,000 students an exemption from service.
The Likud wants to reverse allowing an exemption for 1,000 students. Instead, it wants to present a minimum number for those in service, which will be increased each year.
Yisrael Beytenu’s bill would require all 18- year-olds, including Arabs and Jews, to enlist in the IDF or perform civilian service. The proposal allows for 1,000 yeshiva students and the same number of athletes and artists to receive an exemption.
Those who do not serve would not be allowed to receive grants or payments from the government. The bill states, “This law proposal prevents draft dodging and creates a situation in which those who cannot serve in the IDF can serve instead in the civilian or national service. The idea that Torah study somehow forbids seeking employment or justifies exemption from IDF service is incompatible with the Jewish faith.”
The bill goes on to quote Maimonides and uses him as an example of someone who combined work with Torah study.
According to Yesh Atid, anyone who does not perform IDF or civilian service will not receive government stipends, and the IDF would take first pick on whom to draft with the remainder doing national service for two years. The program would come into effect after a five-year intermediate period during which haredi men would be exempt from army service but would be able to participate legally in the workforce.
The Independence bill calls for the IDF to decide which 18-year-olds should serve in the military. Anyone not recruited by the army would be required to perform one year of civilian service.
The “Camp Sucker” protest movement called Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid’s plan for drafting haredim into the army and national service a “catastrophe.” A movement spokesperson said the program would sabotage efforts to pass a law in the current Knesset session to apply equal standards and rules to all Israelis as promised by Netanyahu.
Specifically, the movement said it objects to Lapid’s idea of delaying the enforcement of equal standards for five years.
AND THERE are problems with all of these recommendations. None of them deal with draft evasion by the secular. Today, a large number of secular youth, especially from elite Tel Aviv circles, do not serve in the army.
Studies have shown that at least 20 percent and up to 30% of secular men and women avoid the draft each year.
They also do not specify how the army can properly conscript haredim.
In recognizing the need to select a core group of people who fully devote their time to Torah study, there needs to be a system of eligibility for exemption.
A plan that allow only 1,000 students an exemption would create intense haredi infighting and mass corruption. It would, as Jonathan Rosenblum writes in his column, “tear apart haredi society the way the Cantonist decrees tore apart Eastern European communities in the late 19th century.”
There needs to be a nationwide exam that all yeshiva students would be required to take. The top percentile would be exempt from army service and the rest would be required to serve either in the army or in parallel programs such as a civilian force, police force or National Service. Firefighting, prisons services, soup kitchens, hospitals and old-age homes are also all viable possibilities.
The haredim are different from the rest of Israeli society – or any society for that matter; haredim in America consider holding a job as valuable, while in Israel it is not as important, if at all.
Much of Israeli society remains ignorant of haredi concerns and some of those concerns can be considered legitimate, but whether those concerns would be dealt with in a proper manner is doubtful.
It is also possible that some haredim might view these efforts as so damaging to their lifestyle and beliefs that they may just decide to pick up and leave the country.
The state cannot take an entire group of haredim, raised and imbued with values wholly different than ones the state embodies, and expect them to integrate easily into army life. The army is not sufficiently set up to deal with the sensitivities involved.
Haredi recruits would require a completely different standard and they would require commanders and officers capable of understanding their background, upbringing and perception of society and the world as a whole.
Those who believe that haredi yeshiva students can be thrown into the existing military mold are delusional. Reality demands that a true solution be found – one that respects the values haredi Jews believe in.
If it is true that the army is meant to serve as a vehicle through which all members of society share the national burden of securing the state, there is no reason not to accommodate those who are in fact taking part in this effort.
While haredim will need to make some compromises, it is the army that needs to change – not the haredi recruits.
If the state wants haredim to join the national effort, a mechanism must be put in place by which their religious standards are not overly compromised.
WHILE THE haredim protest strongly against any type of service, it can nonetheless be assumed that there are numerous individuals and families who would benefit greatly from the system. Without doubt, many young men and women are eager to undergo the army experience or national service, but are prevented from doing so by their society.
In the haredi community there are few goals and objectives. Men are expected to study and gain knowledge. Women are expected to have children and raise the family.
The self-fulfillment and satisfaction that haredi men and women can receive from army or national service and a job is barely, if at all, considered.
To emphasize this point, a young haredi man I interviewed a few months ago underwent a life change that he considers incredible.
A. is 30 years old, one of 10 siblings (his wife is one of 12) with three children. He was raised to believe that army service was a terrible thing and so he did what everyone else in his community was expected to do – get an exemption.
This worked out fine until at some point he forgot to go the the recruitment office and, to make a long story short, he was drafted against his will into the IDF.
He and his wife were in shock that such a terrible set of circumstances could befall them. They decided to tell no one except her sister and mother. They told their children he was studying in a yeshiva far away and therefore must leave early and come home late. To this day his family supposedly does not know he is serving in the army.
Conscious of the stigma in his community against serving in the army and fearing discovery of his secret, A. leaves his house each morning wearing a hat and jacket, his uniform hidden away in a bag, and changes only when he reaches the base. He practices the reverse when he returns home, so that no one will see him in uniform.
At first he found the experience extremely difficult, but eventually he was offered a role on his base which allowed him the opportunity to teach others and hold a responsible position. In yeshiva he was one in a crowd. On base, he felt he was making a difference and contributing to society.
In addition, the army realized he and his wife are in dire financial circumstances, and they took measures to alleviate their financial burden. The army brought them home furnishings and each week provides him with food to take home to his family.
What he and his wife thought to be the worst thing that could happen to them actually turned out to be extraordinarily positive.
How unfortunate that this man’s life improved for the better, yet he must hide it from his friends and relatives out of fear of what they might think of him.
How unfortunate that if the community discovers his secret, it will, in his words, “ruin his sisters’ chances of finding a good match.”
THE MAIN issue, then, is breaking the stigma the haredi community attaches to army service. The existing attitude of rejection must change to that of acceptance.
Haredi leaders must accept that they are causing a nationwide “hillul Hashem” (desecration of God’s name), and bring a positive change to a segment of society that is suffering and cannot sustain itself indefinitely.
The contribution the haredi community can further make to society is significant and a system should be set in place to facilitate the absorption of thousands of haredi youth into the draft system whether it is for IDF or civilian service.
The perfect solution may remain elusive but it is worth exploring existing options.
There is no longer an alternative and the current status quo is no longer acceptable.